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A Hot Summer in Europe
The continent’s sovereignty, such as it is, depends on containing Russian ambitions.
30 July 2009

Is there such a thing as the European Union? In Washington, the State Department has been seeking the phone number for such an entity since the days of Henry Kissinger. In Moscow, the EU is nothing but a television prop. Since the days of Soviet foreign minister Andrei Gromyko, regimes have come and gone, but the conviction endures that only classical powers matter: the United Kingdom, France, and above all Germany, long a political dwarf but always an economic giant. As for the historians, they’re uncertain: the De Gaulle–Adenauer and Mitterrand-Kohl relationships did not work for long, and London’s tiffs with Paris and Bonn (and then Berlin) were all the talk for decades. In the face of a global crisis, European disunity is evident.

The original, six-nation European Economic Community was able to overcome atavistic and ideological divergences only by focusing on limited but crucial stakes, of which two were most important: resistance to Stalinist expansion, and the will to have done with the economic warfare that led to global conflicts. Have such ventures now come to an end? Europe’s cherished “common values” are seriously damaged when a former Social-Democratic German chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, is named to head the Russian natural-gas company Gazprom hardly a month after leaving office. This past January, half of Europe froze because of the Kremlin’s energy blackmail. But there’s no evidence that Schröder protested when his new bosses threatened to cut off the gas (via Ukraine) to his fellow citizens; he was too busy amassing his millions.

Does Schröder represent corruption or conviction? No doubt both lead him to revile independent Georgia, while the Kremlin dismembers her through a barely disguised annexation of her provinces, in blatant contempt of cease-fire agreements signed with Nicolas Sarkozy, the enterprising president of Europe. One might object that the ordinary greed of the former German chancellor in no way stigmatizes the whole EU—except that he remains a moral authority of the Left among Germans, who respect their new friend Vladimir Putin and consider the Georgian president, Mikheil Saakashvili, unstable and dangerous because he continues to resist Big Brother’s decrees.

At the end of a short stay in Georgia (imagine Tuscany, a sea that is black in name only, and snow-covered mountains year-round, a favorite refuge of persecuted Russian poets such as Lermontov, if memory serves), I told myself that if it is a sign of mental illness not to give in to the Putin-Medvedev team, then 4 million Georgians must be as crazy as their president. They are too proud of their newfound freedom and too fond of their culture to surrender to an empire of 140 million souls. They retain searing memories of massive purges organized by Stalin, Beria, and Ordjonikidze, “shameful Caucasians” who liquidated more than one of every ten citizens. Under 70 years of Soviet rule, the gardens, the commerce, and the black market of the Caucasus fed starving Moscow and Leningrad. So it’s not hard to understand why the aggressive advice Russia offers on economics and democracy is met with irony.

Beset by a vehement and fragmented opposition—probably all the more vehement because it is so fragmented—whose only agenda is the unconditional dismissal of the president, Saakashvili holds his ground. He was democratically elected under the supervision of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), and he has worked to build a republic free of corruption, as international observers have attested. Such a state is a novelty in former Soviet lands, and in particular in the Caucasus. Why should Saakashvili give in to the minority? Why shouldn’t he complete his term, as presidents do in democracies? He allows protests, tries to negotiate, and outlasts his opponents. In recent months, his favorable ratings have varied between 53 and 65 percent, according to independent and international pollsters. This does not mean that there is nothing to be said for the opposition, which plays a necessary role in every true democracy; but its intolerance reflects badly on it, and the Russian media exploit it and carry it further, demonizing Saakashvili as the Hitler of the Caucasus (in Dmitry Medvedev’s phrase).

The charge is absurd. If only such a vibrant opposition could exist under Putin’s regime—with newspapers, two television channels, and the privilege of blocking major arteries and access to official buildings by setting up political protests. In Georgia, I saw a protest take place for two months, while the police refrained from opening up traffic in order not to offend the demonstrators. How many minutes would it take to arrest someone so bold as to set up a protest in front of the Elysée Palace? And who would imagine for an instant that such a thing could be attempted in Red Square?

Independent Georgia must survive through this summer. Last year, the Russian army positioned itself just 20 miles from Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi—one hour on the highway by tank. Clouds are gathering: large military maneuvers, inflammatory media rhetoric, and a Russian veto in the UN Security Council that interrupted the work of neutral observers. The UN and the OSCE have packed their bags, leaving 200 observers, restricted to the Russian side. Pavel Felgenhauer, a military specialist based in Moscow, fears that the Russian military command will take advantage of the absence of observers in Georgia to concoct some pretext to invade and fulfill their fondest wish—to “hang Saakashvili by the balls,” as Putin threatened in 2008. (After all, didn’t Germany invade Poland in 1939 by trotting out two unfortunate Polish border guards, whom the Germans accused of “invading” the Third Reich?) Andrei Illarionov, Putin’s special advisor until 2006, shares similar apprehensions. It’s hard to know what to expect. Sergei Kovalev, an activist and a friend of the late Andrei Sakharov, dissuades me from trying to read the signs of the times. The Russian rulers are not strategists, he says; they settle their accounts day by day, attend to their own interests, and plan their gangsters’ business month by month and year by year. But the current heads of the Kremlin will never forgive the young Georgian leader his crime of pro-Western sympathies.

Can President Obama and the European Union contain Moscow’s ambitions and whims? Or will they purchase a fallacious and precarious tranquility by sacrificing Georgia’s independence? At stake is the very sovereignty of Europe: its energy independence. Energy has become decisive because for Putin, gas is now a weapon as powerful as a deterrent arsenal. Consider a popular song performed by a military choir in Moscow. Its chorus depicts the “radiant future” that Gazprom is preparing: “Europe has a problem with us? We will cut off its gas; a big smile will rise in our eyes and happiness will leave us no more.” Similar sentiments are expressed toward the Ukraine and its desire to join NATO, as well as toward American forces all over the world. The Russian public loves the song.

If Tbilisi falls, there will be no way to get around Gazprom and guarantee autonomous access to the gas and petroleum wealth of Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan. As for the global credibility of President Obama, it will amount to no more than the empty-sleeved gestures of someone whose arms have been amputated.

André Glucksmann is a French philosopher. Translated from the French by Alexis Cornel.

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